In preparation for an extra-festive Thanksgiving this year, I went to Amazon.com on Monday in search of a turkey drumstick headband. I discovered to my horror that, even as an Amazon Prime member, I would have had to pay $45 in extra shipping costs to get a drumstick bopper or decorative pumpkin pie hat by Thursday. Fortunately, a friend found the holiday regalia in stock at a physical store: Ricky's, a New York costume and beauty shop.
The episode underscores the greatest strength of a traditional retailer in the online era: immediacy. If you're on a tight shopping deadline, you can always just walk into a store and get what you want right away.
It also raises the question of why brick-and-mortar retailers still place so much emphasis on Black Friday -- when a growing number of people are shopping online -- rather than on the week leading up to Christmas, when physical store chains have their biggest advantage over mega-rival Amazon.com.
In fact, retail spending over the four-day Black Friday weekend fell by 11 percent in 2014 from the year before, according to the National Retail Federation. The trade group's 2015 survey reveals another slight decline in consumers who expect to shop during the Thanksgiving weekend, as retailers including Amazon and Gap have already lured shoppers in with Black-Friday-like deals throughout the month.
New data from Foursquare show the highest-traffic day at brick-and-mortar retailers is no longer Black Friday. Instead, more people visited stores on the Saturday before Christmas (Super Saturday) last year, when shoppers went out to snag last-minute gifts.
Those last few days before Christmas are also a time when consumers, bombarded with aggressive offers all season, stop holding out for a better price and finally cave in to make a purchase. Meanwhile, shoppers burned by the gigantic shipping snafus and weather problems of the past couple of years are less trusting of online retailers. They are more willing to brave the crowds in those last few days, for the promise of actually taking home that Star Wars Jedi lightsaber or Paw Patrol adventure set for the kids, in time for Santa.
Common retail wisdom once called for getting into a shopper's wallet as early into the season as possible, which led to the Christmas creep that turned Black Friday into Black November. But until Amazon can perfect its one-hour Prime Now delivery or train its army of drones to deliver goods in a matter of minutes, it's the last few days before Christmas when traditional retailers can really shine.
The problem is, brick-and-mortar retailers burn so much energy on Black Friday that, by the time the last week before Christmas comes around a month later, employees are tuckered out. Stores are a mess. Inventory is picked over. And those Star Wars lightsabers are definitely gone.
Retailers would be better off keeping some of their Black Friday spirit in reserve.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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